IT has taken 64 years and 44 days for him to become King Charles III. No heir apparent in history has had a longer period of training nor ascended a throne better equipped. If he lives as long as his mother did, he has another 22 years to accomplish everything he has sought to achieve during that lengthy apprenticeship.

Charles, then Prince of Wales, made his only visit to Pakistan in November 2006. I, as the honorary British consul, Lahore, had the privilege of attending on him and his wife Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall. It was my second lengthy encounter with royalty. I had performed a similar function for the late Queen Elizabeth II in October 1997.

Such proximity gave me a deep respect for the professionalism of the royal family. Their visits were planned well in advance. The reconnaissance team from Clarence House, for example, arrived in Lahore on Sept 25, 2006 to plan the programme.

The focus of the prince’s visit was interfaith dialogue. Just as his father Prince Philip had found his vocation in conserving wild life, Prince Charles found intellectual escape in promoting interfaith communication. He knew that one day he would be both head of the Church of England and also monarch of a multiracial, multi-religious kingdom. He declared his intention of amplifying the scope of his title as ‘defender of the faith’ to ‘defender of faiths’.

He knew he would be monarch of a multi-faith kingdom.

Clarence House asked me to be moderator of the interfaith dialogue the prince would chair. The governor Punjab, a retired military officer, thought otherwise. First, he denied entry to the advance party to enter Governor House. (‘Would they allow me into Buckingham Palace without notice?’) He then replaced me with an inarticulate secretary Auqaf.

High Commissioner Mark Lyall Grant invited my wife and I to meet the royal couple in Islamabad at a reception on Nov 2. We watched as Charles and Camilla moved seamlessly through the crowd, exchanging places so that the 200 guests on the upper and lower terraces had a chance of seeing, if not speaking to them.

I had left two of my books on Lahore and Pakistan for them. They contained illustrations done by 19th-century visitors. The next morning, when I received the couple at Lahore airport, I had barely introduced myself when the prince thanked me for the books, adding: “I greatly enjoyed reading them. I particularly liked Prince Waldemar’s sketches.”

It was during their tour of the Badshahi Mosque that I received an insight into his well-honed professionalism. A phalanx of photographers had taken pictures of the couple against the backdrop of the mosque’s grand façade. When they had appeared to have finished, he beckoned that I should join him. I did.

Suddenly, the cameras came into action again. There was a succession of blinding flashes which unnerved me. “How do you cope with this, sir?” I asked him. He replied: “I’ve had to endure it since birth. One gets used to it.”

After a quick visit to the Samadhi of Maharaja Ranjit Singh (which my ancestor Fakir Nuruddin had built between 1839-49), we met again in Governor House for the interfaith dialogue.

The instructions from Clarence House could not have been more precise. They specified that ‘The Governor will invite the Prince of Wales to enter the dining room from the side door of the Ivory Room. Taking the entry point at 6 o’clock, the PoW will be at 9 o’clock of the round table. He will meet the participants, starting with the person at 8 o’clock and continuing anti-clockwise to his own seat.’

Each of the round table dialogue participants was given three to four minutes to speak. They found it difficult to control their volubility.

The Prince spoke without notes. He began by saying that different faiths had more difficulty with the press than with each other. He spoke of the Islamic Advisory Group he had set up. Dialogue was easy at a table; the challenge lay in implementation. While all great religions shared a vision of the same Ultimate Truth, he felt ill-informed leadership was the cause of strife between communities. He described his continuous interaction with the Al-Azhar University in Cairo, which had awarded him an honorary doctorate.

He spoke in this philosophical vein for about 10 minutes. He concluded by remarking that what he had said came not from any profound scholarship, but from the heart.

At the conclusion of the dialogue, Prince Charles passed me. He shook my hand and whispered: “I was told about the change. But I wish it had been you.”

Everything that royalty says is remembered by everyone they meet. King Charles will be, as he has been, circumspect in speech, regal in mien, and more than charged to propel the British monarchy into the 21st century.

The writer is a former honorary British consul, Lahore (1995-2022).

Published in Dawn, September 15th, 2022

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